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edwardseal image

Having already looked at the relatively simple and crude lead-alloy personal seals of the 12th and 13th centuries we now turn attention to those matrices executed in copper-alloy. These are mostly vesica and round in shape with a pierced loop on the reverse or more rarely on the edge. Shield and oval shapes are less frequently encountered. The date range for these personal seals is generally from the mid-13th to mid-14th century when named personal seals for the lower classes begin to disappear in favour of more prosaic legends using stock phrases and mottoes. The engraving is usually of a higher standard in these copper-alloy examples particularly in the later period and there is also far more variety shown in the choice of motifs and design.

The use of heraldry is quite common with the simplest designs merely having an upright shield of arms with the field left plain. In some cases the seal itself takes the form of the shield with the legend around it (as Cat no.1). By the late-13th century the empty spaces between the shield and legend begin to be filled with foliage, tracery and small beasts - the forerunners of true supporters. From the early-14th century onwards the shield sometimes hangs from the branches of a tree and as the century progresses the designs become even more elaborate with crested helms, supporters and mantling surrounding the shield.

Religious designs such as the Agnus Dei, the Holy Lamb of God carrying the banner of victory (Cat no.2) and the Pelican in her Piety (Cat no's 3 and 4) occur quite frequently, often though not always on the seals of clerics. The Agnus Dei was a very popular motif in the Middle Ages being symbolic of Christ. John the Babtist who babtised Jesus in the River Jordan said 'Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.'  The Pelican in her Piety - a symbol of sacrifice and charity was also much used based on the fable that the mother fed her offspring with blood by piercing her breast with her beak. Other religious designs include standing figures of Saints, tonsured heads of men in Holy Orders, or figures kneeling in prayer, the latter often depicted in a small panel below the main design.

More secular devices include just about everything that it is posssible to imagine - birds, animals, fish, human figures, busts, clasped hands, trees, flowers, ships and architecture. Very often the device appears to be purely arbitrary but in some cases a rebus is used. Thus the seal of Simon Fishburn has a school of fish swimming in a burn and that of Jordan Heron appropriately has a bird in the form of a heron. Some are more obscure such as the hedgehog of Leo Heris (OF 'heris' - a hedgehog) or the blackbirds of Roger Merlay (arch Sc. 'merle' - a blackbird). Another kind of representation relates to the profession of the owner, thus a brewer might choose a vat as his device, the butcher an axe or the bowman his longbow.

An increasing feature on seals of the 14th century onwards is the demise of the legend as a means of identifying the owner. This type of seal would have been used to close personal letters and the legends such as FRANCE LEGE TEGE - 'Break, read, keep secret' often refer to this purpose. IE SV SEL DE AMVR LEL - 'I am a seal of true love' and IE SV SEL BON E LEL - 'I am a seal good and true' are other examples in this class. Another 'mute' category of seal is the so-called 'SOHOU' type. Sohou is a hunting cry and this is often used with the name of a hound as in SOHOU ROBEN or on its own as in Cat no. 7. Sohou seals are much more common in the next category of seals that we will be looking at - the conical-handled pendant seals of the late-13th to late-15th centuries.

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